It’s been a tough week here at the farm. Bobcat Ransier made several trips out with his backhoe to plant three members of the sheep flock. One expired as a result of misadventure and two others succumbed to the effects of a mysterious parasite.
Bob shut the machine off after the final excavation and paused to do some bereavement counselling. “Do you want to check around the place before I fill this in?” he asked.
When my father-in-law presented me with my first six sheep as a wedding present 31 years ago he warned me that they had an alarming instinct for self-destruction. But they still catch me off guard.
I assured Bob there was no plague going on. You can’t do anything about an old sheep who is determined to jam herself halfway under a gate and it’s a tricky thing to spot certain parasite problems in time to take action. I’ve already dosed the flock twice this summer for roundworms, corkscrew worms and liver fluke on top of the usual 9-way booster vaccination and a drench for coccidiosis.
“It could have something to do with the age of these animals,” said Bob. Coming here is like going to the Legion. Maybe you should invest in some younger stock.”
He may have a point. In a well-run sheep flock the older ewes are supposed to be culled, usually by the age of ten. But I find it difficult to fire an old sheep off to the works after she has cranked out eight or nine lambs for me. It just doesn’t seem right or fair. This is a fatal weakness in a shepherd and I think one of the reasons that people prefer to run a thousand sheep at a time, rather than twelve, as I do. You don’t get attached.
When I was a kid you didn’t have to do much with a sheep besides dock the tail and maybe soak it with a tick spray once a year. Now a sheep gets dosed and drenched and vaccinated for a host of different ailments. Even then they still think up creative ways to die that I have never heard of.
Some years ago I came into the barn and found Cinder, the black ewe, lying down and staring straight up at the ceiling, apparently fascinated by the light bulb above her. I realized she was in some kind of a spasm so I loaded her onto the back of the truck and drove her into town to see Dr. Jim, who wasn’t doing farm calls any more. I stopped at a red light and noticed people looking at the sheep and then looking up in the air to see what she was interested in. Dr. Jim diagnosed sheep polio.
“Sheep polio?” I said, alarmed. “I’ve never heard of polio in a sheep.”
“That’s the thing,” said Jim. “You’ve only had the sheep for twenty years and you only keep twelve. So you’re always going to see something new. There’s more than 250 things that can go wrong with a sheep. You’re not even halfway there yet.”
Sheep polio is caused by a thiamine deficiency, not a virus. Jim was very surprised when I got a handful of off-label thiamine needles from a friend at the hospital (they use it for treating severe alcoholics) and succeeded in bringing Cinder back to health. He actually dropped by to look at this miracle sheep that had defied the odds.
“She’s okay but she’ll probably have some brain damage,” he warned. I forgot to ask him how you would tell if a sheep has brain damage. But sure enough she seemed to suffer a serious short term memory loss. Hay was always a complete surprise for her after that and she often came up from the pasture and stared at the barn as if to say, “Who put that there?”
Cinder lasted another couple of years and produced two more lambs but I made the mistake of allowing a portrait artist to set up in the barnyard and fashion an oil painting of her. I find this is almost always fatal for an animal. Within a month Cinder figured out a way to hang herself in a gate she had lived beside for a decade. She now hangs in the hallway outside my office, a testimonial to long service and a tribute to imaginative and inventive ways to exit this world.